These are raw and revealing times for the James Beard Awards. The 30-year-old annual celebration of America’s best restaurants, chefs, journalists, critics, cookbook authors, broadcasters and makers of digital media — called the Oscars of the food world — slammed to a sudden, messy halt last month.
On Aug. 20, the James Beard Foundation, the award organizers, announced it was canceling a planned late-September reveal of victors in the coveted chef and restaurant categories. (A ceremony for awards in the softer categories, including classic restaurants and Humanitarian of the Year, will take place this month; in May, the foundation crowned this year’s media winners on Twitter.)
The decision implies a crisis of conscience, the foundation’s simmering ambivalence about the optics of throwing a virtual party for an industry that’s taken a cruel thrashing from the coronavirus. But it was the second part of the announcement that hinted at something beyond the disruption caused by the pandemic. The Beard Foundation said it was also canceling the 2021 awards, in part to give the nominating committees a chance to scrub the process of what it called “systemic bias.”
In subsequent reporting in the New York Times, Pete Wells wrote that the decision to scrap the 2020 announcement was made because, despite the foundation’s focus on racial and gender diversity in recent years, not one Black winner was included in the 23 categories already shortlisted and voted on by the subcommittees. (Full disclosure: I have won two James Beard Awards for writing, have judged a subcategory of journalism entries and served for two years on the nominating committee for the restaurant and chef awards in California.)
In a time of reckoning, marked by grassroots calls to challenge the whiteness of food, when powerful editors have toppled like Confederate statues, the 2020 awards were poised to lift the status quo even higher, and do it in the name — and with the implied blessing — of James Beard.
What a travesty.
Because whatever Beard’s sins — he was a complex personality with a nature that could be charming one day, cruel and exploitative the next — he always championed an expansive, democratic notion of food.
Beard spent his life urging us to kick down the barriers — of class and geography, and the manipulations of a food media run by mega companies or a small circle of Manhattan elites — that kept many Americans from knowing the pleasures of food and drink. In his life, James Beard pushed a progressive, anti-elitist message about food. I spent four years researching his life and writing his biography, which publishes next month.
I believe that if Beard were alive today, his voice would be the loudest calling for radical changes to the ceremony that bears his name.
What’s more, he’d be deeply conflicted about having his name attached to an event that celebrates an American restaurant industry built on status, by investors with deep pockets and important connections. When he died at 81 in 1985 — months before the founding of the James Beard Foundation, and more than five years before the first awards ceremony — Beard did not want his name affixed to anything, except posthumous royalty checks.
Though Beard’s name was synonymous with American food, before his death he told one of his closest friends that he wanted to disappear when he passed: to turn his face to the wall and just … vanish.
In his will, Beard arranged for his townhouse at 167 W. 12th St. in Greenwich Village to be sold off (with the stipulation that Gino Cofacci, Beard’s partner of 30 years, keep his third-floor apartment until Cofacci died). He wanted nearly everything he’d ever collected — his massive hoard of majolica, his precious knives and antique kitchenware, most of his books, and even his collection of bow ties — to be liquidated, the proceeds donated to Reed College in Oregon, his brief alma mater, and among the nation’s most progressive universities.
Beard’s effects were auctioned off, and Cofacci was able to remain in the apartment until he died in 1989, but by 1985 Peter Kump, a Beard protege who had launched a cooking school, had rallied Julia Child and other luminaries to mount a fundraising campaign to purchase 167 W. 12th St.
They donated the purchase price to the college and renamed the building Beard House. Wolfgang Puck cooked the first benefit dinner there.
By 1986, the newly launched James Beard Foundation had a mission of advancing American culinary arts. And in a canny move, Kump announced the creation of the James Beard Awards, merging the Cook’s Magazine’s annual Who’s Who of American Cooking with French’s Food and Book Awards under the foundation’s banner. The awards were scheduled every year to coincide with Beard’s birthday (May 5).
Robin Leach, host of TV’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” emceed one of the early awards ceremonies of the 1990s, and it helped to build a vision of the hospitality industry as one of conspicuous bedazzlement: money and status, “Dynasty” shoulder pads and limited-production Napa cabs swirled in voluminous glasses.
This had just precisely zero to do with Beard’s work and his legacy.
To cook along with Child in the 1960s and early 1970s, a cook had to invest in a batterie de cuisine and have hours of leisure time to take on a recipe for gâteau Reine de Saba. Beard told us we could find just as much joy throwing together a Lazy Daisy cake — to cook in an American idiom, easygoing and accessible food.
This was a radical idea for a nation conditioned to think of fine cooking as indistinguishable from fancy French restaurant dishes, booby-trapped with unpronounceable names that served as class markers.
You can read one of Beard’s greatest books, “Delights and Prejudices” of 1964, as an artistic awakening, the story of the author’s discovery of purpose through shopping, foraging and eating, remaining open to the possibility of pleasure in the surrounding landscape. He laid the groundwork for Edna Lewis’s simple, seasonal and graceful Southern cooking to be taken seriously in American publishing; he built an ethos of local sourcing and eating that would inspire Alice Waters. Smokehouse hams, cheeses, tortillas, wines, whiskies: Beard taught us to respect the things that were grown, raised, cured, baked, churned, distilled or vinified around us. He made us love the fruits and vegetables that grew in our own regions, the things with nuances of flavor caused by the soil that peas or strawberries poked through, or the ambient humidity and length of days where they grew.
In private, Beard groused about the values of social climbing oozing from Gourmet magazine in the 1950s, blasting it in a letter to a friend as “an esoteric sheet with no sense as regards to food and drink.”
Worse, Gourmet could be racist. In his 1952 travelogue-cookbook “Paris Cuisine” (co-written by Alexander Watt), Beard found the city’s postwar bistros humming with energy, thanks in part to new immigrants: Poles, North Africans, Russians.
Writing in Gourmet at almost exactly the same time, columnist Samuel Chamberlain found the city’s restaurants vulgar and garish, lacking the undiluted Frenchness of the places he’d known in the 1920s. Chamberlain noted “a squalid cafe reeling with noisy Algerians,” and remarked with obvious distaste on another, where he noticed a Black woman cooking. She “wears a bandanna and is a close replica of Aunt Jemima,” he wrote, “except that a strong French cigarette dangles perpetually from her lower lip.”
In 1955, Beard wrote a piece for Reader’s Digest titled “How Good Is American Food?” He questioned the supremacy of the nation’s vaunted food system, refuting some of the agricultural and supply-chain achievements of post-World War II America — capitalism’s miracle, supermarkets stocked with corn and tomatoes in January. These, along with our frozen foods and convenience mixes were articles of faith during the Cold War, testaments to American achievement. Beard exploded the myth that a food system that didn’t consider flavor could be superior.
And he encouraged Americans to find a sense of curiosity — to elevate pleasure, almost as a political act — to wrest their food from the numbing mediocrity of products designed by engineers, in corporate labs. This is what we should celebrate chefs and restaurants for: rebelliousness, independence of thought, a lack of fear in slaying old idols.
In a 1955 cartoon, accompanying an Art Buchwald column in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune about Beard’s hatred of the word “gourmet,” Beard appears as a kind of anarchist who has wired a fancy dining hall with dynamite. Upstairs, New York’s gourmet elite is enjoying a lavish banquet, unaware that Beard is in the basement, about to push the plunger detonator and obliterate them all.
If Beard’s ghost is to be dragged under a spotlight he didn’t seek, shouldn’t we at least honor who he was? Shouldn’t his eponymous awards seek to resist the status quo, to give money and influence and calcified tradition a shove as hard as Beard once tried to?
Birdsall is the author of the “The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard” (W.W. Norton & Company), which is set to be published on Oct. 6. He is the recipient of two James Beard Awards for writing, in 2014 and 2016.
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